Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Robert Palmer Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Sneakin’ Sally through the Alley (1975, Island)

A –

If you’re only familiar with Robert Palmer via his late ‘80s arena rockers like “Addicted to Love” or “Simply Irresistible,” you’re likely to be fairly shocked by most of his earlier work, particularly this debut album, which is considerably less rock than it is R&B and funk, his backing band here even including members of Little Feat and the Meters! Palmer was always more of a soul singer than a rocker, though, anyway, so he sounds more at home here than he did on most of his late ‘80s sides. The debut gets off to a rousing start with the 1-2-3 punch of his cover of Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes,” the self-penned “Hey Julia,” and the first-rate rendering of the Allen Toussaint-penned title cut, all of which segue quite nicely into each other. Side Two gets off to a solid start, too, with the underrated Palmer original “How Much Fun.” The album’s lone flaw is that the needlessly long second-side-closer “Through It All There’s You” (which clocks in at over twelve minutes) makes the album feel as if it was slightly rushed, and it would have been preferable to have three shorter cuts instead.

Pressure Drop (1976, Island)

A +

Even better than the debut, Palmer is once again backed by members of Little Feat here, which is always cause to celebrate, but it’s the high quality of the songs that really steal the show here, and it’s hard not to marvel at the craft that went into these songs, either the well-selected covers (particularly Little Feat’s “Trouble” and the indestructible title cut, a reggae standard originally done by Toots and the Maytals) or Palmer’s own excellent originals like “Give Me an Inch” (a genre-defying song flexible enough that even folkie Ian Matthews covered it years later to surprisingly successful results), “Which One of Us Is the Fool,” or the wildly underrated and deliriously funky “Work to Make It Work.”

Some People Can Do What They Like (1976, Island)

A

Every bit as fun as the last two discs, Palmer continues his hot streak here with another Little Feat-assisted, R&B-heavy outing. Palmer doesn’t tinker too much with his winning formula, once again covering a Little Feat tune – this time, the deep funk of “Spanish Moon” – and rounding out the rest of disc with an equal balance of well-chosen covers (such as Don Covay’s “Have Mercy)” and fine originals, highlighted by the propulsive title cut and “Gotta Get Grip on You (Part II).” The album’s most deliriously fun moment is the nearly carnivaleseque, boogie-woogie-meets-junkanoo-music sound of the remake of the calypso standard “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” formerly a minor hit for Harry Belafonte. It’s a radically different arrangement from the way you’re probably used to hearing the song, but it’s also arguably more playful and danceable, and it’s hard to resist singing along to it.

Double Fun (1978, Island)

A –

Ever so slightly inferior to the previous two discs, Palmer starts to move away here from the pure R&B of his earlier albums to explore a wider range of sounds. Not all the experiments here work (the reggae-styled cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” is a somewhat ill-advised idea, although Palmer makes up for it with the slippery funk of Allen Toussaint’s “Night People”), but Palmer’s writing remains excellent (“Best of Both Worlds” and “Love Can Run Faster” can both get stuck in your head very, very easily, and “You Overwhelm Me” is gorgeous), and the album also gave Palmer his first Top 40 hit with the island-flavored “Every Kinda People,” a lovely social anthem penned by Andy Fraser (formerly of the rock band Free of “All Right Now” fame). Perhaps the biggest and best surprise here, though, is the jaw-dropping, self-penned closing cut “You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming,” an aggressive, guitar-powered rocker that is overflowing with hooks from start to finish and would later become a minor hit for Bonnie Raitt.

Secrets (1979, Island)

A +

Arguably Palmer’s strongest album from start to finish, Palmer once again tries on a wide array of styles here, but he does it all so well that it simply ends up being impressive rather than seeming like a confused jumble. There is a massive Top 40 hit on here – the Moon Martin-penned “Bad Case of Lovin’ You (Doctor, Doctor)” – but that song actually pales to the other material on here, be it the furious guitar-heavy near-power-pop of the Jo Allen-penned “Jealous” (easily one of Palmer’s most underrated moments), the complex rhythms of “Woman You’re Wonderful,” the reggae workout “What’s It Take” and the lovely “Mean Old World.” Best of all is Palmer’s highly soulful reworking of the Todd Rundgren hit “Can We Still Be Friends”; it was always a devastatingly pretty song, but Rundgren’s own production of it was fairly off-kilter and not exactly obviously commercial, but in Palmer’s hands, the tempo is sped up ever-so-slightly and the song injected with a hint of R&B, and the final result might be the only time that anyone has actually ever managed to improve on one of Rundgren’s already-masterful songs. 

Clues (1980, Island)

A +

Influenced in part by Gary Numan, who even pops up here (on “I Dream of Wires”), as does Chris Frantz from Talking Heads, Palmer’s first outing of the Eighties finds him immersing himself fully into new-wave music to surprisingly astounding results and even indulging himself by handling most of the guitar and bass duties. “Looking for Clues” cleverly features Palmer’s voice multi-tracked to simulate the sound of two different vocalists singing the entire song in unison in separate octaves and also boasts one of the few xylophone solos you’ll ever find on a pop record, which is a fun twist most listeners will never see coming. The frenetic “Johnny and Mary” is even more inventive, welding a dramatic, nearly Springsteen-esque story arc about a couple growing apart to a propulsive synth track reminiscent of a-ha. The combination works marvelously, though, and Rod Stewart would more or less steal the idea for his own single “Young Turks,” though not enough people had heard “Johnny and Mary” for the public to really notice. The island-flavored “Woke Up Laughing” and the insistent stomp of “What Do You Care” are just as fun, as is the surprisingly effective new-wave reworking of the Beatles’ “Not a Second Time.” It’s a shame Palmer never quite made another album like this, ‘cause new wave was actually a really great fit for him and he was rarely ever more inventive than he was on this outing.

Maybe It’s Live (1982, Island)

B –

A fairly strange release that just comes across as a stopgap project, Maybe It’s Live couples six live tracks with nearly a side’s worth of studio-recorded leftovers from the Clues sessions. The live recordings are fine, if not particularly revelatory or essential, but the studio side is where the real fun here lies. They may be leftovers, but Clues was such a first-rate album that even the leftovers are still fairly great in their own right. “Style Kills” is a hidden gem, but the real reason to own this package is the mind-boggling remake of the Persuaders’ R&B classic “Some Guys Have All the Luck.” Technically, it’s not a true remake: Palmer simply wrote a very off-kilter, fractured new-wave song – one lacking much of a proper melody, Palmer largely speaking his way through the verses – and, upon realizing that he had unintentionally ripped off part of the old Persuaders hit for the chorus, generously decided to give that song’s writer (Jeff Fortang) credit for the entire song. Rod Stewart subsequently recorded a proper cover of the Persuaders song as it was originally written but using a new-wave arrangement modeled after Palmer’s “version,” scoring a major Top Ten hit in the process. (Hilariously enough, he also did this on the same album on which he covered Palmer’s first hit “Every Kinda People,” and just a few years after he wrote the “Johnny and Mary” sound-alike “Young Turks,” so Stewart must really be some kind of fan!)

Pride (1983, Island)

C +

It’s still a perfectly fine pop album – and occasionally quite good – but it’s hard not to be just a little bit disappointed by this somewhat transitional outing from Palmer. Like a lot of Palmer’s albums, it’s a bit all over the place stylistically, but the difference is that the songs aren’t quite as fun and immediately attention-grabbing as they usually are. There are certainly exceptions – the synth-powered “You Are in My System” is pretty hard to get out of your head once the chorus hits, and the island-flavored “Pride” is quite charming – but as a whole, it’s Palmer’s least satisfying studio album yet.